In this highly engaging book, André Gushurst-Moore surveys twelve of history’s greatest men of Anglo-American letters: Thomas More, Jonathan Swift, Samuel Johnson, Edmund Burke, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Henry Newman, Orestes Brownson, Benjamin Disraeli, G. K. Chesterton, T. S. Eliot, C. S. Lewis, and Russell Kirk. Along the way, he explores several interrelated themes, all intended to illuminate “the common mind.”
What is this common mind? It is that which rests upon the uniformity of human nature, and which encompasses qualities and values shared by people throughout history simply by virtue of their common humanity. Predicated on this is the idea of common sense and a properly formed conscience, the “faculty that negotiates . . . moral action.” The accumulation of insights and wisdom imparted by such a conscience over the centuries represents what Gushurst-Moore then calls “the wisdom of the integrated person” and “the integrated wisdom of the group”—what we might call “custom” and “tradition.”
As Gushurst-Moore explains, the common mind is really an “integrative” mind, bringing together the best of the modern, the medieval, and the classical. In the works of Thomas More, with whom these essays start, it is reflected in the influence of Plato and Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas, Cicero, Lucian, Thucydides, and Sallust. In short, the common mind is “the mind of Europe, the settled mind of the West.”
Its opposite is “the disintegrative mind.” This is the mind of the sophist, the Pyrrhonist, Ockhamist nominalist, radical skeptic, and deconstructionist—anyone who denies universal truths and attempts to annihilate meaning by seeking to “fracture the connection between common sense . . . and language.” Dangerous stuff, this—and characteristic of so many thinkers of the Left.
In the twentieth century, we have witnessed the bloody legacy of the disintegrative mind: It is one of alienation, fragmentation, and death. And at the societal level, it has resulted in a “decline of civility and manners,” the “celebration of the violent, the cruel, and the outré,” and a general “denial of beauty and decorum” in art and literature.
Like many people, Gushurst-Moore wonders where we went wrong. How did we lose “a society of gentleness, order, politeness, and restraints”? But the purpose of his book is neither diagnostic nor prescriptive. Rather, it is a celebration of men over the centuries who have opposed the disintegrative mind and whose literary works aimed at evoking “a familiar, older, and more gentle social order.”
Various interrelated themes guide the author. Happily for the reader, Gushurst-Moore—currently Second Master at the Benedictine “Worth School” in West Sussex, England—is adept at elucidating the themes on which these men of letters concur. They have the effect, he says, “of commenting on each other, across the barriers of time.” The result is an extended meditation on the qualities of the common mind.
To be sure, not all of the figures profiled have the same partisan allegiances. But all have an abiding respect for humane learning and the Western tradition. Their acceptance of universal truths and their recognition of the reality of a flawed human nature transcend “classes, circumstances, and individuals.” And whether considering More in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Coleridge in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, or Kirk in the twentieth century, Gushurst-Moore reminds us that their struggles are also our struggles today.
Each of these writers—through what he calls works of “conservation, defense, restoration, and recovery”—constructed imaginative “visions of order.” They demonstrated how the common mind could help illuminate, redeem, and rehabilitate the “fragmented consciousness and disintegrated world of modernity.”
In some ways, this book can be considered a eulogy to the classical Christian humanism of the West—to the idea that liberal education should have a moral purpose and that literature should be the principal means through which men develop the moral imagination. This is, of course, Cardinal Newman’s educational ideal: producing “moral aristocrats capable of independent reflection, and guided by the integrated personality itself.”
It’s interesting to note that it’s not just traditional drama, fiction, and poetry that serve this formative purpose. Gushurst-Moore also sees an important salvific role for other forms of literature. For example, literary fantasy “opens up the possibility of the supernatural in a culture that has lost its religious bearings.” And, he adds, it can be especially effective since it is often written in simple language—accessible and easy to understand—while imparting moral lessons or great wisdom.
This also explains his inclusion of Russell Kirk in this collection of profiles. In Kirk’s essays, he often explored how “writers such as Tolkien, Lewis, Charles Williams, and the science fiction writer Ray Bradbury, use fantasy and myth to remind people of the norms from which their society departs.” But he also wrote imaginative fiction himself—his so-called “Gothic romances.”
What’s more, Gushurst-Moore considers Kirk’s life itself a “redemptive work of art”: Here was the Bohemian Tory inveighing against modernity from his Italianate mansion in the little town of Mecosta. For Kirk, he explains, “conservative” was more than a political label; it stood “for a whole attitude to life, including the religious, philosophical, political, literary, and the everyday.” It was simply the “natural political position of the common mind.”
It’s worth remembering that considerations of the political in this book are incidental, as this is primarily a work of literary analysis and philosophical reflection. In fact, throughout, it is clear that the author has a vocation—to teach others about literature and educate them about the higher things.
In his introduction, for example, Gushurst-Moore provides a close reading of Philip Larkin’s poignant “Going, Going” with its images of a disintegrated world. Later, he offers a miniature thematic study, looking at how Brownson and Disraeli, for example, both wrote about the folly of trying to impose one country’s political constitution on another country without, in Brownson’s words, any regard for the latter’s “sentiments, convictions, consciences, manners, customs, habits, and organization.”
Gushurst-Moore’s descriptions can be wonderfully apt. He calls Brownson an American version of Thomas Carlyle or John Ruskin: “voluminous, verbose, thunderous, and prophetic.” When considering the heroic couplet, he says it is where “[t]he spirit of Voltaire and the spirit of Rousseau come together,” deeming it “the literary correlative of an abstract political constitution imposed on any nation, whatever its customs and traditions.” At other times, he is unexpectedly droll: “It is difficult, at the best of times, to think of Coleridge, the inveterate opium-eater, as a conservative.”
In the end, Gushurst-Moore concludes with a thoughtful essay on the future of the common mind in the West. And he leaves us with a lasting impression of the thoughts and ideas that he has gleaned from the great works of these twelve giants of humane literature—in the hope of inspiring us, presumably, to make similar efforts to defend the common mind.
Yet perhaps the book’s most important message is that, despite the disintegration and fragmentation of the modern world, we are compelled to remember that which makes us human—and which binds us to other men. Or, as Chesterton says, “we need a rally of the really human things.”
In the meantime, what is left? Eliot tells us: “Only the fight to recover what has been lost.”
From ‘The New Criterion’ September 2014.
Amazon: ‘The Integrative Mind’